By Sharif Durhams (NGLJA board member and Reporter/Social Media Editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Washington Wizards free agent Jason Collins wrote this week that he wanted to start a conversation when he became the first male athlete on a professional team sport to declare he’s gay.

The subsequent “conversation” on ESPN almost overshadowed the announcement when an ESPN reporter said Collins’ declaration was “in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.”
During a discussion Monday on interview program “Outside the Lines,” ESPN NBA analyst Chris Broussard told the show’s host about the varied reactions from players, team general managers and NBA leadership to Collins’ announcement.

The host then asked Broussard about a section in Collins’ piece in which he describes his Christian upbringing.

Broussard spent the next minute sharing his view:

Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly premarital sex [sic] between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says “You know them by their fruits.” It says that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I do not think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.

The host elicited this response from ESPN opinion writer LZ Granderson, NLGJA’s 2011 Journalist of the Year:

My response is that faith–just like love, just like marriage–is personal. If you try to use a broad brush to paint everyone’s faith, what you really are painting is a world in which it’s comfortable for you … in this country, we’re allowed various forms of religion. Just because someone doesn’t agree with one person’s interpretation of the Bible versus another, doesn’t mean that they have the exclusive rights to dictate how that person should live.

ESPN later released a statement saying the network regrets “ that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today’s news.” Broussard released a statement reiterating his beliefs, but said his personal views won’t change his ability to report on the NBA and described Collins as brave for publicly coming out.

Broussard is receiving the expected support and criticism. As a journalist, I’m more intrigued by the question that triggered Broussard’s hotly debated statement. “He mentioned in his article, Jason, that he is a Christian as well, so what’s your take on that?”

Broussard is free to have whatever religious beliefs he wants. But having the host even raise the question of whether an athlete’s faith is genuine seems to be a place reporters would rarely go.

We could, for instance, ask Broussard’s take on players who have children out of wedlock while saying they’re Christian, but I can’t imagine an ESPN host raising that question. Former New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow is probably the most visibly vocal Christian athlete in American sports, but I can’t imagine an ESPN host asking whether his particular evangelism is Christ-like.

The website Business Insider went as far as to see an ESPN conspiracy in the decision to raise the question. “[W]hen you consider both Broussard’s history and the entire context of the conversation, it’s clear that the producers at ESPN knew exactly what they were getting themselves into, and it’s their fault more than Broussard’s for creating a situation that they’ve now apologized for.”

Broussard’s views are known. In 2007, already-retired NBA veteran John Amaechi announced publicly that he was gay. Two years later in an interview, Broussard said many sportswriters wrote about Amaechi’s announcement from a “pro-homosexual” standpoint.

I don’t know that I’d take it that far. But the ESPN host opened the network to such accusations.

There are a number of ways the host could have gotten to the issue of religion without asking Broussard his personal opinion. And there are ways Broussard could have reminded the audience that some athletes would have a religious objection to Collins’ sexual identity without sharing his personal objections.